Tom Uhlenberg

Can Reunion Travel Save International Tourism? One Country Hopes So

It was only the third day of my stay in Singapore, and I had already eaten food from at least 30 different regions worldwide.

Hopping from hawker center to hawker center, my friend and I munched in delight as heaping plates of dishes like Hainanese chicken rice, barbecued sting ray, prawn noodles, beancurd spring rolls, roti, curries, and chili crab were placed in front of us, expertly curated by our local guide, Kim Ping, a Singaporean native and passionate foodie.

Each bite reminded us of our surroundings, a tiny nation the size of an American city so packed with multiculturalism that it could rival some of the world's most major metropolises. Here, elements of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European cultures are knit together to create streets lined with temples, mosques, and churches. Four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—could be heard simultaneously on each passing block.

One immediately got the sense that Singapore was a place where people from any part of the world could co-exist with tolerance, acceptance, enthusiasm, and curiosity. It made sense, then, that this melting pot of people and cultures from around the world would be the perfect meeting place for international travelers to reunite.

Asia Chinese Teochew Noodle
Calvin Chan Wai Meng / Getty Images

To promote travel to the country post-pandemic, the Singapore Tourism Board launched a campaign called "SingapoReunions," focusing on luring travelers looking for a place to reunite with one another or finally meet for the first time. The island nation hopes to position itself as a central destination for friend and family reunions through group packages and partnerships with resorts and hotels.

"Many of us have not gotten to see our loved ones or meet new friends in person these last few years," said Rachel Loh, senior vice president, Singapore Tourism Board, Americas. "With travel restrictions finally loosening, we were looking to encourage travel to Singapore as a way to reconnect, try new experiences, and make up for lost time with those we were separated from."  

For families, in particular, the country hopes to capitalize on its reputation as one of the safest destinations in the world, a reputation partly held up by the fact that it has some of the strictest laws in the books.

To experience the campaign for myself, I flew to Singapore to meet up with an Amsterdam-based college friend I rarely see more than once every two or three years. Pre-pandemic, my friend and I were always happy to take advantage of our two different locations to pick a new place to meet and discover. We spent a week in Prague, a holiday in Greece, and a birthday celebration in Berlin. But like many long-distance friendships, the pandemic threw a wrench into many of our hopes to reconnect. When the opportunity arose to finally meet up for a few days in a new destination, we jumped at the chance. It seemed like exactly the type of thing we would do back in the before times.

Neither of us had ever been to Singapore, but it was very high on our bucket lists. And in the age of revenge travel, with many finally able to spend time with those they may have been separated from, what better time than now to go big?

The distance from New York and Amsterdam to Singapore was long. But if there's one thing the last two years have taught us, it's that life is short.

The country has high hopes that others will feel the same. The first half of 2022 brought in 1.5 million visitor arrivals to Singapore, nearly 12 times more than the 119,000 visitors who arrived in the same period the year before. In the past three months alone, the number has jumped to 2,415,084 visitors, already at 53 percent of the arrivals to Singapore during the same period in 2019.

This country offers something for everyone regardless of their interest—the foodie, the explorer, the wellness lover, and the night owl, to name a few

While international tourism remains at a fraction of the country's pre-pandemic numbers, the country's tourism board expects those numbers to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels by the mid-2020s.

It's not hard to see why. "This country offers something for everyone regardless of their interest—the foodie, the explorer, the wellness lover, and the night owl, to name a few," said Loh.

Over our five days in Singapore, we caught up over drinks at Republic and Analogue, ranked as two of Asia's 50 Best Bars. We sampled the country's acclaimed hawker centers, inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List in late 2020. We shopped in Chinatown and Little India, visited mosques and temples, and took in the colorful carpet shops of Kampong Glam.

Arriving during one of the country's busiest seasons, we were surrounded by visitors from around the world seeking the same kinds of discoveries, and not just travelers in their twenties and thirties. Many multi-generational families filled the country's famous Gardens by the Bay on the day we visited, as well as the country's unique Hell's Museum, the spooky-sounding exhibition within Haw Par Villa theme park that examines the ways the world's many religions interpret the afterlife.

As part of the SingapoReunions package, hotels and resorts partnered with the Singapore Tourism Board have been offering these friend and family travelers group-focused experiences, dining credits, special room rates, and more.

"With the reopening of international borders, it was an opportune partnership," said Zinuan Long, manager of PR and communications for the Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford, both participating in the campaign. Since becoming participating partners, both hotels "have seen an increase in number of bookings for 2023 with guests from various parts of the world."

The number of travelers taking advantage of the package has been so promising that the Singapore Tourism Board decided to extend the program into the spring of 2023.

Long isn't surprised. "Singapore's geographic location is its natural advantage," he told me. (Direct flights to Singapore were available from Amsterdam and New York, and the country's central location in Southeast Asia affords it numerous connections to the rest of the region.) "And eating good food is a national obsession which brings people together."

Will other countries follow suit? The initial success of Singapore's campaign shows that trends like multi-generational travel and "friendcations" don't seem to be going away anytime soon. 2023 may be the perfect time to reconnect with that far-flung friend or relative and get adventurous.